Heart String Marionette is an independent animated film released in 2012 by a man who goes by the name of M dot Strange. It’s about a mime/samurai wandering across a quasi-Japanese world inhabited entirely by masked puppets, searching for his lost memories, using the power of his own despair to battle demons and seek out a vague vengeance that isn’t properly detailed until the very end of the film. Go ahead and take a second to absorb all of that.
Rather than dive straight in, I should give you the chance to avoid my rambling and mention that the entire movie is up for viewing on the creator’s Youtube channel. But there’s a catch in that there’s two versions of the movie, and the better one is harder to find. The Original Cut features music composed by a guy who goes by Endika. Unfortunately, at some point Endika and M dot Strange had a bit of a falling out, and this led to Strange releasing an “Uberector’s Cut” that cuts out the opening credits sequence, cuts some scenes of exposition, moves the actual ending behind the end credits, and most important of all, features an entirely new soundtrack created by Strange himself that is not very good. Largely ambient and techno/industrial, it’s not terrible, but it feels like generic video game music. It makes some of the dialogue a little easier to hear in spots, lacking the blaring horns of some of Endika’s tracks, but it also shifts the tone of the movie wildly. Whereas the original is melancholy and odd and sometimes marvelously melodramatic, Strange’s soundtrack seems to be trying too hard to creep you out or make you think the stuff going on onscreen is more badass than it actually is.
Endika and Strange eventually made up, and Strange uploaded the Original Cut again. But for some reason, it’s unlisted, meaning you can’t find it in Youtube’s search bar or by poking around in the channel. You can only access it if you have a direct link to the video. Luckily for all of us, I’m an obsessive weirdo and eventually tracked it down.
So here’s the original, with Endika’s soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJp0jIZNPhk
And here’s Strange’s Uberector’s Cut for the sake of comparison: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4Y5jUqBm8k
After some opening shots to establish that we know what marionettes are, we open on an island seemingly made of giant stone hands. In the center is a stage, with a large wooden box. A weak voice cries out for help, revealed to be a boy inside the box, accosted by strange laughing statues with clown faces. Eventually, someone shows up to open the door for him and we’re introduced to our hero, Samhaine Tsuke. Sam-hane-skay. Samanosuke. YA GET IT? Don’t worry, the punny names don’t stop there.
Here we get our first bit of plot, rather than visual, weirdness. The boy claims that he wasn’t looking for someone to let him out of the box, but rather he was in need of an actor, and Samhaine fits the bill perfectly. Samhaine is hesitant, saying he lacks a face, but the boy encourages him, saying that at least he has a voice. The boy commands him to be a hero and tasks Samhaine with hunting down a clown who stole his brother and locked him up in the box, while simultaneously referring to Samhaine as his brother. Samhaine accepts, saying he’ll cut down all the people trying to hurt the boy, “even if I have to kill the Devil himself.” Samhaine leaves and the boy cries out to him, reminding him that style counts for a lot and he should remember to dance.
After that, we’re treated to a few minutes of establishing shots, music, and opening credits as Samhaine makes his way to the local warlord’s mansion. A group of armed men are waiting in the entrance hall as Samhaine enters and presents a picture of the clown given to him by the boy. But there’s no clown present, and the leader of the armed men mocks Samhaine as he struggles to remember who his brother is and what happened to him. Eventually, the men shoot Samhaine in the heart and drag his body off. Movie over. Don’t worry about that remaining hour and forty-five minutes or so.
Meanwhile, a woman named SiouXsie (Susie) Silen is traveling in a palanquin. She makes conversation with one of the palanquin bearers, asking what the difference is between a marionette and a puppet. He tells her that puppets are controlled from below while marionettes are controlled from above, but that marionettes don’t actually exist. This bit of common sense and exposition ends up being slightly important later on. There’s a short musical interlude where Samhaine is implored to “reach for the sword in his heart,” which he uses to escape from the afterlife. We then get a brief introduction to a wandering archer named Tatsuya, who is pretty much here just for comic relief, a simple man with simple desires: to become a hero so he can pick up chicks.
SiouXsie’s palanquin is attacked by a demon, which kills both of the bearers. As the monster descends on her, Samhaine reappears, wielding the same sword that allowed him to return to life and wearing a different mask from what he had on before. Here we also get our first taste of Samhaine monologuing about his despair and his identity, or lack thereof. This is something that’s going to keep happening for the rest of the movie, and also seems to signal Samhaine having come to embody the “role” he was given by the boy at the beginning. He also claims that to face him is to face his “higher power”, indicating that Samhaine seems to believe he’s a marionette.
Samhaine makes quick work of the demon, and SiouXsie, who believes him to be the Prince of Marionettes, eventually convinces Samhaine to come with her, saying that she has some bodyguard work for him and that she can help him find the clown he’s after. The two set off and encounter numerous bandits and monsters along the way, as well as a couple of children by the riverside singing a song about a little boy born without a face, his father having traded it to the Devil in exchange for immortality. We also learn that the reason all of the puppets wear masks is because it’s believed that the Devil himself is roaming the land, and will steal your soul if he sees your face. Obviously this is all tangential and has nothing to do with what we’re watching. Obviously. Also the warlord’s name is Lord Wor. Drink it in, people.
Eventually, SiouXsie and Samhaine arrive in SiouXsie’s village, and most of this scene just seems confusing and out of left field. Yes, even by this movie’s standards. The two walk up to the front of a building called “Salvation Saloon” and are soon confronted by a group of men bedecked in crosses who claim that SiouXsie is marked for death and they intend to punish both her and Samhaine for their sins. Samhaine easily wins and SiouXsie takes him to the other side of town to confront the creature these people seem to worship, called The Body. The Body makes his appearance and makes a lot of noise about “the body of Christ” and “the Lord of Lords.” The whole thing seems like it’s set up to be a pretty obvious middle finger to Christianity, except within the context of the movie it doesn’t really make much sense. The Body is just another demon, and the “Lord of Lords” he claims to represent is Lord Wor, a man who works for the Devil. So it’s…technically supportive of Christianity? Trying to say something about people who use religion to mask their hypocrisy? Simply trying to be offensive? I really can’t figure this one out.
Anyway, as Samhaine fights The Body, SiouXsie is kidnapped by the Waspwoman, another one of Lord Wor’s demons. Luckily, Tatsuya has been stalking SiouXsie for quite some time and manages to save her. After releasing her from her cage, he asks her about the man she’s traveling with and she reveals that he’s Samhaine Tsuke. Tatsuya releases his inner fanboy upon hearing this, relating the story of an old play known as “The Silent Form,” written by Samhaine Tsuke. Found a long time ago in a cave, the author is unknown apart from the signature on the cover. However, the events of the play mirror the events of the movie. So that’s a thing.
Having defeated The Body, Samhaine realizes that SiouXsie is missing. He wanders along the road, searching for her, eventually finding her in another village after dispatching some more of Lord Wor’s demons. Samhaine has some kind of breakdown, wondering if he’s real. SiouXsie flirts with him/tries to steal his sword, but Samhaine rejects her advances, saying he’s not a man, but a monster. Samhaine wanders off alone into the countryside, bemoaning his fate as a puppet destined to follow the script of the play. SiouXsie also wanders off and encounters the Waspwoman in a graveyard, revealed to be Samhaine’s mother, having been turned into a monster by Lord Wor. The two talk for a while before Waspwoman takes SiouXsie to Lord Wor.
Tatsuya tracks down Samhaine and they both make their way to stately Wor Manor to save SiouXsie and face off against Lord Wor. Samhaine cuts a bloody swathe through Wor’s men, monologuing through most of the battle, before making his way into the mansion. Tatsuya ends up locked out because the time for funny ha-ha is over.
Samhaine confronts Lord Wor, his father, who apologizes for having wronged him in the past. Samhaine surrenders to Lord Wor, and they make their way to the conveniently placed Hell portal in the back of the mansion. Lord Wor calls out to the Devil, saying that they’ve come to release him. The Devil, speaking in what sounds like German or French to my uncultured Murican ears, declares that his physical form has deteriorated and he requires a new vessel. He wants Samhaine’s body.
The Devil, who resembles a brine shrimp, asks Samhaine to remove his mask to complete the process. But as he does, the Devil stares into Samhaine’s faceless…face, declaring that he does have a face and is something monstrous. Lord Wor doesn’t understand why Samhaine has a face as he, “made sure he died inside.” Samhaine proceeds to beat the Devil to death with his bare hands as Wor approaches him, and we get a silent scene of Samhaine’s childhood, abused and beaten by Wor, who is revealed to be the clown from the picture given to Samhaine by the boy. After this, Wor retreats back through the portal as Hell collapses around Samhaine. Another demon appears, and Samhaine gives a monologue about hate before cutting it down, his sword now having his heart prominently displayed on the blade.
Samhaine comes back through the portal, declaring himself to be a monster of his father’s own creation. Wor agrees, and apologizes, saying that he’ll atone by burning down his mansion and abandoning the machines that give him eternal life. But as Samhaine approaches Wor, his heart ceases beating on the sword and he collapses. Wor transforms into the clown and stomps Samhaine’s motionless heart into dust.
What follows is an emotional musical scene where the boy offers up his heart to replace the one Samhaine has lost. Samhaine cuts down Wor, who thanks him for freeing him as he dies, happy that Samhaine has ended the cycle and will never become his father. The life flows from Wor, reviving all those he’d stolen life from across the land. Samhaine cries over his father’s remains before turning to bow to the people assembled behind him, and the astonishingly short credits roll. Interestingly enough, the musical part of this scene is missing from the Uberector’s Cut. In that version, Wor destroying Samhaine’s heart leads directly into the credits, which then cuts straight to Samhaine killing Wor, with no sort of explanation given.
To start, here’s a comment from Strange himself pulled from the upload of the Uberector’s Cut:
“Ok well I want people to have their own interpretation but I’ll share some of my thoughts on it- the main character was the kid in the box- though he wasn’t a real boy- he was an inner child- he was a dead inner child that drove his adult form Samhaine to get revenge on his real father Lord Wor for killing him- Lord Wor abused him so he ran away and died inside in the forest- The clown was the abuser inside of Lord Wor- Wor served the devil and he didn’t plan for him to be killed but was glad when he was dead- and that he himself had been killed by his son so his son would not become him- if he did then Wor would be become the new devil and the cycle would repeat- so another theme is cycles of trauma- lightning/thunder/rain/fire represented that….”
Most of which seems pretty obvious. All of the stuff revolving around the theme of child abuse is pretty straightforward and easy to pick up on. It’s everything else that’s harder to figure out.
What is Samhaine’s “higher power”? His anger and despair over the abuse at the hands of his father? It’s certainly justified, but why does it separate him from the rest of the puppets? Puppets are controlled from below, while marionettes are controlled from above. The distinction would seem to be that the rest of the puppets are driven by base desires, while Samhaine has something far more grand or virtuous pushing him forward. But is his anger and thirst for vengeance really all that different from anything that could be considered more base? He’s certainly not the only person in this world to have suffered at the hands of Lord Wor, so then why does Samhaine seem to be the only marionette? Is it God or something divine? That seems unlikely, as the only time divinity ever really seems to be invoked is during the sequence with The Body, and that certainly seems to suggest that the creator has a dim view of religion, or at least Christianity.
And why include that scene in the first place? Of everything else that happens, that scene seems the most disconnected from the rest of the film. And why is the Devil the only character who speaks in something other than English? Simply for spook factor?
And what about The Silent Form? All the events we witness have been laid out beforehand in a play written by Samhaine himself, suggesting that none of the characters involved have any real say in anything that happens. Samhaine laments his lack of free will and his nature as a puppet around the middle of the movie, but he’s also the author of the play. So he regrets that he’s an instrument of…himself? He’s playing a part that he doesn’t want, but it’s one that he quite literally gives to himself? He worries that he’s not real and just acting out the play, yet it’s a play of his own making? Wut.
Also why is he a mime?
I very clearly do not understand Heart String Marionette, but I certainly like it. It’s visually striking and the music is excellent (in the right version). I’m tempted to call it a two hour music video, but that seems a little reductive and insulting. Especially for something that took four years to make and clearly had a lot of love put into it. If nothing else, it’s creative and wholly unique. And in a world of reboots and remakes, that’s always a small blessing. Give it a look if you’re after something novel or interesting, or if you think you’ll have a better understanding of it than me, which is very likely. Just watch the right version. Seriously.